“Why are you afraid…?”

In the Catholic Church today much emphasis is placed on one’s worthiness for Eucharist, so much that some people are actually denied the right to participate if certain conditions aren’t met. In previous posts, I’ve revealed my own parents’ pain in having been excluded. Now it’s time to examine the costs to all people within the Church, regardless of their own personal worthiness. Again, I turn to a reading offered through the retreat provided by a Riverside Church minister:

“And when he got into the boat, Jesus’ disciples followed him. A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (Mt. 8:23-27)

The prompt for that day did change the setting a bit, inviting us to imagine ourselves sitting across from Jesus at a favorite coffee shop, but the primary question remained the same. Jesus, our prompt established, looks us in the eye and then asks, “What are you afraid of? Why are you afraid?”

In pondering that question, I found that the imagery offered in the actual story spoke greatly to me. In trying to name my fear – of being rejected, alienated from all others – I could recall how emotional terror arises in me whenever I sense rejection/alienation is possible, just as it recently had when I got into a conflict with a person I deeply value. I could feel the power of that terror’s ability to push me off course, to even spin me about, leaving me incapable of maintaining direction and focus. I could name so many times when being rudderless, I made mistakes, trying to gain control, trying to find a means of avoiding rejection, alienation. I also know that in those moments – especially more recent ones when wisdom guides me to prayer and contemplation – that it is through my relationship with Jesus/God that such seas are calmed, that such winds are stilled. And in that awareness, I turned my attention back to the Catholic Church and its identity as being Christ to the world.

Most often when I’ve heard people preach to this story, the emphasis lies in the power of Jesus to calm the storm, and then, the call for us to turn to Jesus when we’re in the midst of turmoil so that he may calm the storms of our own lives. Yes, for those of us who are attuned to such inner awareness of Jesus’ presence, doing such a thing does offer much peace. However, at times, it is not so easy to do so, especially when it seems that everything around us is raging so desperately that we feel our very lives are at risk. At such times, we need a place, a genuine place to go so that we may find such peace. And, I will admit, many of us do go to our Catholic churches. In fact, not so long ago, when visiting St. Pat’s here in NYC, I was moved by the number of people kneeling in the pews, heads down, apparently seeking peace, solace, something there in the middle of the afternoon. Yes, our physical buildings, so beautiful, so quiet, can offer much. But what about we who are in them? Do we provide the peace people need so that the storms may be calmed?

“Of course, we do!” we declare with confidence. And, in the many ministries offered through the Church – formally and informally – much peace is offered. But yet, let’s return to the fact that some people in our midst are not fully accepted, that some people are expected to change their ways before they can receive the ultimate comfort offered by the Catholic Church: Eucharist. What do they experience when they enter the Church?

As I’ve noted before, my own parents did not experience peace within our parish, especially not during mass. Knowing how obvious they were in remaining in the pews, they couldn’t help but feel judged. There they were, wanting only to share their love, to nurture their relationship as they raised  three children, while also knowing that if my mother were to become pregnant again, she would more than likely face yet another life-threatening situation, and what did the Church offer? Condemnation, not peace, because they chose the means that would allow them to love each other and their children without fear.

And what about couples who face divorce? What do they find as they pick up the painful shards of broken hearts? As they sift through the remnants of dreams unfulfilled?  In order to enter into new relationships, they must first give to a distant third-party the most intimate details of their heartache so that he may determine whether or not they are worthy of loving again. And, if he decides that they are not worthy, well, regardless of their being beloved children of God, they are never to be intimate again with another person. Is that the way a storm is to be calmed? Is that the way peace is offered?

I think not. Rather, what’s offered is more stress, plain and simple, stress that intensifies, not calms the storms of life. Have the bishops ever wondered what it’s like to fear pregnancy, knowing a woman may lose her life? Have they never pondered what it would be like to experience the breakdown of a relationship meant to last forever? Have they never looked at what they communicate about God when they insist that only if certain conditions are met that people are worthy not only of sacramental participation but full, intimate human love as well? I must ask: are they that blind? Are they really that insensitive?

“No,” they would insist. “We are not. We are only following God’s will.” They tell us that both Scripture and Tradition have revealed God’s will, that there are certain things we must and must not do. A man marries a woman: forever. A married couple is open to new life: always. Non-heterosexual love is an abomination: absolutely. Only men are to be ordained: without question. Whatever the Church decides is to be respected, because, they insist, Jesus told Peter, the first to hold the keys to heaven, “Truly, I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt 18:18). Therefore, we are told, God wants only one thing from us as we strive to maintain relationship: obedience, obedience without regard to its very human cost.

But is obedience really the mark of true relationship? I think all of us know the answer to that: No. Other than between parents and young children, the expectation of obedience damages relationships. But what of our relationship with God? Shouldn’t obedience be the defining factor in that one? We need only turn to one of our favorite parables. Read the words of the elder son as he greets his father after the prodigal son’s return: “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you kill the fatted calf for him!”  (Lk 15:29-30).

In having been so devoted to obedience, the elder son doesn’t even identify himself as son. Rather he sees himself as a slave. Bitterness pervades, especially as he refers to his younger brother as being, “this son of yours.” When he says that the father has never given him even a kid goat, we see, too, he has forgotten an important fact. Immediately after the younger son’s request that opened the story, this is what the father did: “So he divided his property between them” (Lk 15:12b). Through that action, the father clearly shows that he is genuine when he tries to reassure his elder son: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours….” (Lk 15:29-31). That estate actually belonged to the elder son as well. Therefore, the son need not have waited or even asked for a kid to be killed; it was his all along, but in being so intent on obedience, the young man failed to not only see the gifts of the relationship but to know his full identity as son. Oh how heartbreaking that is, especially when we know how the story ends. We assume that the father joined the younger son to celebrate the return with a feast. As for the older, well, it seems more likely that he remained in the field, possibly with his hand to the plow, looking back, modeling for us the truth of words Jesus spoke earlier in Luke’s gospel: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62).

With this image in mind, I must ponder one other aspect of our bishops’ call to obedience. In addition to hurting those incapable of meeting the standards the bishops set, does it also hurt even those who can obey “God’s will” as they define it? Does it leave those people believing that they are only slaves fulfilling God’s wishes, slaves who will one day be rewarded when their obedience has been proven beyond doubt? Even worse, does it interfere with their ability to see everyone else as sister, as brother? Does it prevent full union in the feast God so clearly longs to offer us?

To be honest, I think that is what the bishops’ call to obedience does. We see it in our communities and even in our parishes where people argue about who’s doing what right, who’s the best Catholic, whose most deserving of God’s loving acceptance. With such tension among members, well, we in the boat of the Catholic Church clearly are not capable of calming the storms of life. Not at all. All too often, in fact, we contribute to them. But yet, but yet, I will admit, being Catholic, being a disciple of Christ does require something: “To love God with all our hearts; to love neighbor as self.”

Just how are we to fulfill that command as a Church?

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